Food & Entertaining| September 2013
While enterprising restaurateur Jonathan Mah’s food is born from tried-and-true family recipes, his newly established Olive Branch eatery is anything but conventional – except for the ovens, that is. The moment the doors swing open at Sidestreet Burgers, the mouthwatering aroma of roasting garlic potato wedges and supremely seasoned burger patties baking hits visitors square on the nose. The man behind the counter, Jonathan Mah, is following the not-so-secret recipe for success his father Galvin perfected – an all-service eatery run by one person. The concept of a one-man operation wasn’t invented by Galvin Mah, but he certainly got a handle on it when the 2008 recession forced him to cut down his staff. “I had to create my own job. It’s less secure, it’s more gratifying. Basically, I tell everybody we’re Jedi knights — we have to know everything. Cook, grocery shop, balance the books, we have to do it all.”Galvin grew up between the aisles of his parents’ grocery stores in the Delta and, as an adult, his entrepreneurial endeavors, which he calls his “projects,” usually focused on food. He’s up to about 23 projects, including his own restaurant, Evans Country Café, his son’s restaurant and his nephew Mike Warren’s upcoming vegetarian buffet. “As a family, our whole thing is food,” says the elder Mah, whose lilting Southern twang belies his Mississippi Delta roots. So when Galvin was running a steakhouse, Jonathan was manning the grill at 12. Although he holds a degree in hotel and restaurant management, Jonathan has never been to a culinary school. He learned to cook through his experiences at Château Élan Winery and Resort in Georgia, Chili’s and O’Charley’s. “We also watch a lot of Food Network,” Jonathan says.Just before opening his own place, Jonathan was the sous chef at Alchemy in Memphis, where he created one of his staple desserts, the Irish Car Bomb Bread Pudding with whiskey praline sauce (save this one for after dinner). He says his dad told him that if he was going to work so hard for so many hours, he might as well work for himself. The opportunity to establish his own restaurant opened when a cozy hut off of Old Highway 78 came up for rent. “I’d been after him for 10 years,” Galvin says. “I was excited he was going to get out on his own. When he did it, he took like duck to water.”With his dad backing him, Jonathan wasn’t too worried about the risks that accompany owning his own place. “I had the confidence that he was going to help me get this started. He was here the first three days I opened,” Jonathan says. Taking a leaf from his father’s cookbook, Jonathan also made the decision to keep his staff small. From behind the counter, he takes orders, works the register and serves up his perfectly seasoned burgers with a smile, including his specials like the Fat Panda, which is Korean-style, marinated sirloin piled high between French bread buns with Sriracha mayonnaise and crisp cilantro to bring it all together.Even vegetarians can get in on Mah’s creative culinary efforts. His spinach burgers are as mean as they come, especially when paired with his Orzo pasta salad with garlic and sundried tomatoes. To keep the food flying out of the kitchen, both Mah men have an extra hand come in the mornings to assist with the prep work. “My thing has always been efficiency. You have to make the process simple,” Galvin says.But to shave off more time and money, every dish they serve up is baked, even Jonathan’s burgers. At Galvin’s Southern buffet, tried-and-true convention ovens are stacked to save counter space. A neat pile of unopened, brand new ovens are ready to go in case one of them stops working, according to Galvin. Everything from the cornbread to the black-eyed peas to the meatloaf is made in the ovens. “If we can’t bake it, we just won’t make it,” Galvin says.Before the sweet scent of country cooking took over, Evans’ Café used to be the ballroom of a local dance company, but you’d never know it if you didn’t ask. Walking in feels more like a family reunion, complete with picnic tables and a spread that would make any grandmother proud. The walls are papered floor-to-ceiling with crayon drawings. Each table has a stack of white paper that serves as both a placemat and canvas for picky children or idle adults. “Every kid that draws something, I tell them you tape it anywhere in the restaurant but on me,” Galvin says.In blue jeans, a baseball cap and a T-shirt, the elder Mah often appears more like a patron than the owner. “In many ways, I made this place comfortable for me,” Galvin says. “A lot of people look for decor, but you can’t eat the chandelier if the food isn’t good. They won’t say it’s the greatest restaurant ever but the food is.”SideStreet Burgers may not be as big as Evans Country Café, but Jonathan, in his chef’s jacket and baseball cap, makes the most of the space he has. Instead of crayon drawings, hand-painted murals of Memphis motifs like the Grizzlies logo, the Pyramid and the trolley bring a little bit of Bluff City spirit to downtown Olive Branch. Unlike the hand-painted signs hanging in the café, smart, simple signage designed by Jonathan’s younger brother gives chow-downers something to ponder while they’re adding toppings or waiting for their meal. One sign tells diners to add them on Facebook with the compelling argument that they’re “cooler than the awkward relative who hasn’t figured out caps lock.”“I blow Facebook up,” Jonathan says, adding that the main way he gets business is through happy customers and word-of-mouth from locals. “That’s what keeps you going, to really wow your customers. I’ll have customers come in for lunch and then they’ll come back in for dinner and they’ll bring a friend.” To cultivate his cult following, Jonathan focuses on the basics. He keeps the burger topping bar stocked with lettuce, tomatoes and onions he gets fresh from the local farmer’s market. His menu is trimmed and tight, but keeps the bare essentials. His tiny kitchen also doubles as his R&D workspace. Everything on the menu earned its spot after being put through its paces. Because he’s his only cook, every burger, pizza or special has to be easy to assemble. “I know what tastes good and what doesn’t. If I feel it’s not going to work, I’ll think it through and see how I can execute it. It’s got to be a simple process.”Jonathan hopes to expand his business one day, but he’s not making any plans to leave the counter at SideStreet unattended. “I will be here because people expect me to be here,” he says. And while his son keeps cranking out the good eats and pulling people into downtown Olive Branch, Galvin will be keeping his eye out for his next project. Maybe an Asian buffet, he says. But no matter where he is, he’ll keep his blue jeans and baseball cap, thank you very much. “We can’t be what every customer wants. We can only be how we are.”
Amen for the Mah Men
Father-and-son duo Galvin and Jonathan Mah cook up a-mah-zing food in the heart of Olive Branch’s Old Towne
Story By L. Taylor Smith | Photos By Casey Hilder
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